Colorado: Program to Connect Youth to Free Counseling Sessions

Polis-Primavera Administration Launches Historic Program to Connect Youth to Free Counseling Sessions

DENVER, CO (STL.News)  In a historic response to the growing youth mental health crisis, today the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) and partners launched the I Matter program that provides up to three free counseling sessions for Coloradans ages 18 and younger or 21 and younger for those receiving special education services.

Youth and their parents can visit the I Matter platform to take a confidential online survey about their mental health and schedule sessions with a licensed behavioral health clinician, primarily via telehealth.  To create I Matter, Governor Jared Polis signed the bipartisan House Bill 21-1258, which dedicated $9 million to the program and was part of the Polis-Primavera administration’s Colorado Comeback roadmap.

“From our first day in office, behavioral health has been a priority for the Polis-Primavera administration.  We recognize that the pandemic has amplified the need for mental health services, particularly for young people,” said Lieutenant Governor Primavera.  “This program is the first of its kind in the nation and meets the urgency of the moment. By bringing mental health support directly to Colorado youth, we can help them take charge of their healing, build resilience, and help our state build back stronger.”

Colorado is believed to be the only state with a program that provides free therapy sessions for any youth, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.  With the allotted funding, the state projects it can serve more than 10,000 youth, depending on initial demand and available therapist capacity.

“By launching the I Matter program today, Colorado is making historic progress in our fight against the mental health crisis affecting our kids,” said Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City.  “Providing free mental health counseling to students is an innovative and transformational way to meet young people where they are and get them the support they need.  I’m excited to see this program become a reality after so much hard work, and I hope to soon see other states follow Colorado’s lead.”

The program launches as Colorado contends with a longstanding youth behavioral health crisis that preceded the pandemic.  The 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey showed that more than a third of Colorado high school students felt so sad or hopeless for two weeks they stopped doing usual activities.  The pandemic exacerbated these trends nationally; research from the Centers for Disease Control found that the proportion of mental health–related emergency department visits among adolescents ages 12–17 jumped 31% in 2020 from 2019.

To help youth connect with a provider who shares their cultural background, I Matter is recruiting providers from all over the state and especially those who represent Black, Indigenous, Latinx and LGBTQIA+ communities. Providers interested in participating in the program can email providers@imattercolorado.org.

OBH will soon launch the I Matter marketing and outreach campaign to encourage youth to enroll in counseling services. Informed by youth feedback, the campaign aims to reach all Colorado teens and particularly youth of color and LGBTQIA+ youth.  Outreach strategies will include digital ads on platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat and on-the-ground outreach to schools and youth organizations. Anyone can order campaign materials, including posters and rack cards, for free here.

State law (12-245-203.5, C.R.S) allows youth 12 and older to consent to counseling without their parent or guardian’s consent, so youth ages 12 and older can access the I Matter platform independently.  Youth younger than 12 can still receive services and will need a parent or guardian’s consent as part of the sign-up process.

Per HB 21-1258, OBH will submit a report to the legislature by January 1, 2022, and June 30, 2022, detailing the number of youth served and the number of services provided through the program.  Funding for the program expires June 30, 2022.